Greener role for sugar beet, Norfolk growers told

Sugar beet growers will be producing the feedstock for 'greener' car tyres and renewable plastic bottles, delegates at the Norfolk Farming Conference were told.

And demand for sugar beet is set to increase as British Sugar looks to a brighter future for what has been regarded as Norfolk's cornerstone crop.

Gino De Jaegher, British Sugar's managing director, told the 300 delegates at the John Innes Centre on Norwich Research Park: 'The future offers even more opportunity. In future sugar beet will be processed for greener energy, greener packaging, for car parts, for plastics and enhanced bio fuels beyond what we're producing today.'

'All this can start with sugar beet. This is the opportunity of the future and it is what British Sugar is studying. We see a business that we can grow which we will need more materials than we have today.'

Coca Cola has launched plans for a renewable and recyclable plant-based plastic bottle and Procter & Gamble intend to use 100pc renewable recycled materials for their packing by 2020, said Mr De Jaegher.

This packaging starts with sugar, produced from beet, which is turned into ethanol and then ethylene - a key material used to make bottles. And Goodyear would be using renewable materials in their tyres from 2013, said Mr De Jaegher.

British Sugar was also investigating the further potential to unlock 'greener' energy by using anaerobic digestion, which was already happening at some eastern Europe sugar factories.

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He started his paper, 'Keeping Sugar in the Game' by recognising the huge difficulties of the current beet campaign and the appalling problems faced by the whole industry from growers, contractors, hauliers to factory staff.

'It has been difficult and painful for the contractors who have lost work and money; I know it has been painful for us as a processor to try to process as much beet off the fields. Also it has been difficult and painful for employees at the factories. I completely understand your feelings.'

'Until Christmas or at least mid-December, I thought that we were on target for another record crop, probably not as much as the 2009 crop but just below.'

And the impact will be known on Monday when parent company, ABF, releases the latest trading statement, said Mr De Jaeger. He was unable to give details because of City financial reporting rules.

Norfolk farm business consultant David Bolton, who said that growers would be effectively receiving about �25 tonne for beet delivered in the next campaign, asked about factory reliability. Mr de Jaegher promised investment at Cantley, which had the 'problem child' during this campaign.

And a long-time critic, land agent Charles Whitaker, of Brown & Co, estimated the losses to growers at between �20m and �25m. On prices, about four years ago, growers were getting about �19 tonne for beet right at the bottom of gross margins.

'We will be right there again this year and we will be there next year. My fear we are not going to see everybody producing masses of beet this next year. We will not get the acreage planted.'

But Mr De Jaegher told delegates: 'We believe that we can take this industry into the future and capture some of the bright opportunities that we can see on the horizon.' British Sugar was determined to have 'a business sustainable for the long term for both the processor as well as the grower.'